The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tensions in the U.S. Catholic Church over abortion, race and politics come to a head in a Maryland classroom

An exchange between a priest and a class of seventh-graders set off a flood of complaints and an appeal to Cardinal Wilton Gregory.

From left: Katie Labrie; her mother, Tracy Labrie; Lisa Counts; and her daughter Lauren Counts pose for a photo. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)
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Lauren Counts was in her seventh-grade language arts class at Archbishop Neale School in La Plata, Md., when her teacher announced that the school administrator had arrived to speak. Counts watched over Zoom as the Rev. Larry Swink appeared, saying he wanted to talk about a handful of girls in the class who Swink said recently bullied another student for opposing abortion rights. She grew alarmed as the conversation veered in an unexpected direction.

“I want you to think about this for a moment. If you’re pro-choice, you’re also a racist,” Swink said, according to an audio recording of the incident last fall. “Which is worse? Murdering someone or making them work for free?”

Once she was called on, Counts said she didn’t see the link between slavery and abortion.

“I’m asking you to defend this logically,” Swink said. How can you not say that they’re linked if certain members of society, namely the unborn, whether they’re Black or White, cannot speak for themselves, but Black lives can if they’re alive?”

The exchange eventually led to a couple dozen families at the school of 270 students calling for Swink’s removal over what they consider politically charged and racially insensitive remarks. Parents and parishioners sympathetic to Swink pushed back with their own story and a petition, noting the initial conversation between the students had become contentious with the girls using a racial slur against the boy, who is of mixed race.

The episode offers a window into how race, abortion and politics collided inside one Catholic school, and how it was handled by clergy leaders in the Archdiocese of Washington, now under the leadership of Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the first African American cardinal.

The issues have become more loaded and urgent as a case speeds toward the Supreme Court that experts say could curtail abortion rights further, and after the Black Lives Matter movement raised public consciousness about systemic racism.

“We’ve had talks since the ’60s about race and abortion, but stakes are higher, and that might be why this got heated,” said Mary Ziegler, a law professor who specializes in the legal history of reproduction at Florida State University. “Black Lives Matter made conversations about race more salient across the board.”

Gregory has spoken publicly about the persistence of racism. And he has had to contend with division among his fellow bishops. Recently, he was part of a faction that sought to delay an effort to have U.S. bishops take up the question of whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should receive Communion — a move triggered by the election of President Biden. While staunchly opposed to abortion, Gregory also opposes what he says is politicizing the rite.

Counts’s teacher, Katie Davis, had framed the discussion that day as a lesson in persuasive writing, urging students to provide evidence and counterpoints to Swink’s argument. Some spoke in favor of reproductive rights, presenting arguments about the broken foster care system, women’s autonomy, sexual assault, maternal mortality and other reasons women might want to end a pregnancy. When the discussion grew heated, Davis stepped in.

“Father’s reason in being here is to make sure that you understand what the Catholic Church is teaching. You’re at a Catholic school. This is our church’s teaching, whether you’re Catholic or not,” she said.

Counts’s parents, both Catholic, said the problem wasn’t the imparting of Catholic theology — it was what they saw as a strictly partisan lecture.

“This had nothing to do with Catholicism, with Christianity, with the Bible. Not once when I was listening to him did he bring up ... scripture, God, Jesus. It was all political rhetoric,” said Lisa Counts, Lauren’s mother. “The delivery of the message was inappropriate, and he singled out the African American and biracial and minority girls in the classroom. He was only speaking to them.”

Two-thirds of the nearly 270 students at Archbishop Neale, which teaches prekindergarten through eighth grade, are Catholic, according to school officials. A majority of the school is White; Black students account for 26 percent.

In the days immediately following Swink’s visit, several parents said they called and emailed the school’s principal, Linda Bourne. Many of the emails went unanswered, parents said. Neither Davis nor Swink responded to requests for comment, and Bourne declined to speak with The Washington Post.

On Tuesday, Nov. 24, Swink sent out an email to seventh-grade parents, reminding them that by sending their children “to Catholic School you agreed to have them learn the Catholic Faith.”

Not satisfied with his or the school’s response, the families appealed directly to Gregory. “We were hoping to be able to speak to someone who has, in his own way, experienced some of the racist attitudes that these girls have now experienced,” said Tracy Labrie, whose daughter, Katie, left Archbishop Neale last year and who acted as a go-between with the archdiocese for the concerned parents.

“We write today with heavy hearts but a unified voice to request that you intervene to remove our School Administrator, Father Larry Swink, as the leader for our school,” said the Dec. 9 letter. “A hostile environment exists at Archbishop Neale School because Father Swink has directly engaged in verbal abuse, discriminatory words and actions, and psychological harm to many students, especially non-Catholic students, students of color, and girls.”

The letter was packaged with the audio of the classroom exchange, testimonials from parents and students, a summary of policies and teachings they believe were violated. “We were hoping that if it made it all the way up to the top, it wouldn’t get lost in the bureaucracy of the church. It wouldn’t get swept under the rug,” said Labrie. “We all feel like [Gregory] is a man who cares and a man that this would not be okay with.”

Over the next few weeks, the parents exchanged emails with the Rev. Anthony Lickteig, who oversees clergy for the archdiocese, and Kelly Branaman, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, who invited the families to meet individually with Bourne, Swink and herself.

The parents said they collectively declined the invitations. “The bottom line here is that isolation, intimidation, and retaliation appear to be the strategies that you are using instead of addressing issues or holding people accountable,” they wrote in an email to Branaman.

A month later, in February, parents found out that Swink was suspended from his duties as school administrator, and within the week, a petition was published urging the archdiocese to reinstate him. The petition, created by another Archbishop Neale parent named Nkiru Lemke, said Swink “heroically came to the defense of a student who was being bullied for his Pro-Life stance,” and in turn, Swink was censured “without hearing from both sides.” It was signed by almost 1,600 supporters over the course of a few days.

Lemke told Defend Life, a local antiabortion newsletter, that some of the seventh-graders who complained about Swink were involved in bullying a boy in group chats for his antiabortion views.

Lemke and several other of Swink’s supporters declined requests to be interviewed for this article. Lisa Counts said that the conversation in the group chat did revolve around race but became more politically charged because the boy repeatedly typed “pro-life” and “TRUMP 2020.” Lauren said she left the group message when the chat got too heated.

Before the petition had been posted for 24 hours, however, Swink said in an email that he would be taking a step back from the school, calling the petition “not necessary or helpful.”

“Several parents made complaints for the way in which I approached the topic of race and pro-life issues, as well as the tone, insensitivity and the manner of my delivery,” he said in the Feb. 22 letter to his parishioners and parents. “I now realize that this discussion was imprudent for many factors, including the age of the students, my demeanor and insensitivity. In working with the Archdiocese of Washington leadership and following standard protocols when serious complaints are made, I am refraining from school activities at this time.”

In mid-April, parents received word from the archdiocese that Swink would not return this school year.

“Following several interviews with parents and students, the Archdiocese of Washington requested Fr. Swink remove himself from the school for the remainder of the year. We pray that the children will have a successful conclusion to the school year,” a statement from the archdiocese to The Post said.

The parents and students say they had hoped for an apology, at minimum. However, said Tia Noelle Pratt, a Villanova University sociologist who has studied the church’s handling of racial issues, the removal of a cleric is significant.

“The pastor is the leader. He is the ultimate authority in the parish for matters of church and school,” she said.

Now, as the academic year comes to a close, the parents and students who called for Swink’s removal are concerned about what happens next.

“I don’t really feel that there’s a real resolution,” Lisa Counts said, frustrated with the possibility that Swink would be reinstated come next school year.

Through the process, the families weren’t sure whether Gregory had heard their case. If he had not, “I hope what it says is that he’s not very well connected with what’s going on down in the lower parts of the ADW,” Labrie said. “I hope that it doesn’t say that he doesn’t care.”

Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.